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Virtual future: Doornbos speaker discusses the role of technology in the future of ag

Written by Emilee Gibb

Casper – Air Force veteran Colonel Philip Doornbos was actively involved at Casper College for 20 years and was instrumental in securing funding from the oil and gas industry for education.

In his honor, the Doornbos Chair at Casper College was formed and is responsible for bringing events and discussions in agriculture to the college.

On March 1, the 2017 Doornbos Lecture Series kicked off with internationally renowned futurist and economist Lowell Catlett speaking on the automated virtual future of agriculture.

Then and now

“Guess what? The good old days sucked,” chuckled Catlett, noting that in 1970, the world population was 3.6 billion, but agriculture could not provide each person with 2,450 calories, which is needed for normal body weight.

Alternatively, by 2015, the world population doubled and grew to 7.2 billion.

“In 2015, we’ve doubled the world’s population, but there’s 3,200 calories produced per person,” he stressed.

Catlett commented that it is commonly reported that the world population is expected to grow to 9 billion.

“If we distributed calories produced in 2015 to the 9 billion people, there’s already 2,450 per person,” exclaimed Catlett. “Agriculture already produces enough food to feed 9 billion people 2,450 calories. That’s fabulous and has never happened in history.”

The amount of disposable income the average American spent on food in 2015 was 9.7 percent, which was the lowest ever recorded.

“Because of the efficiency of agriculture, American people have gotten back 10 percent more money, and it’s fostered a whole bunch of other industries, such as the restaurant industry,” he continued.

If agriculture stopped its progress with the technology used in 1970, Catlett noted that there would be dramatic environmental impacts.

“It would require 3 billion more acres to produce food for the world population,” he noted. “That’s the entire arable landmass of Canada, the U.S. and China combined.”

Prescriptions

“We have something in agriculture now called prescription agriculture,” said Catlett, which is the idea of using site-specific information in management decisions.

“Our planters today plant, for every linear inch, the number of seeds for that specific linear inch that should be there,” he explained.

Catlett continued, “Last year, Kinze gave the world the first multiple variety planter, so now with prescription agriculture, we go through the field and based on yield results, soil profiles and everything for that linear inch, we determine, not only how many seeds to plant but which variety.”

Through the utilization of prescription agriculture, he noted that producers can sequester eight times more carbon from the atmosphere than the natural environment can on its own.

“And if we have a healthy soil microbe profile, that’s another eight times,” commented Catlett. “In a carbon rich world, the people who control the plants, own it.”

Technologies

At the same time, technologies outside of the field are also improving.

“My Galaxy phone is 32 million times more powerful than a computer that took people to the moon,” commented Catlett.

Catlett explained that in 2015, approximately 5 quintillion transistors, which are conductors used to amplify electronic signals, were placed in devices besides computers.

“We’re seeing this already, but get ready. Everything is going to talk to everything,” he said.

Currently, technology with transistors has opened avenues for tracking soil conditions.

“We have the ability to communicate with what the soil it telling us its requirements are and what plant would work best,” continued Catlett.

The technology of three-dimensional printing is also making appearances in the agricultural industry.

“They are beginning to create flexible sensors that we can get for less than a penny they attach to a seed,” explained Catlett. “We will not have a single plant that doesn’t have a printed sensor on it.”

Robotics is another technology that will become more prevalent in agriculture, particularly in fruits and vegetables.

“The next revolution is called Baxter. We take Baxter’s hand, let it feel a ripe peach and put it into this basket, an unripe peach and put it into this basket, and we only have to show it once,” commented Catlett.

Artisan

As technology advances, some jobs will become obsolete, while others are created, Catlett noted, giving the example of eliminating the need for commercial truck drivers.

“But maybe we need a load technician. Technology always creates more jobs than it destroys. We just have to read history,” said Catlett. “It takes the number of hours we have to earn a living down.”

With the increased efficiency from technology advances, Catlett calls the coming era “the age of the artisans.”

“In this world, what technology, robotics and cognition cannot replace is human experiences, and that’s a chance for phenomenal growth,” he continued.

“We can print modular homes, but we might want to customize them,” Catlett explained. “In that artisan world, humans have more money and more time, and human experiences begin to be valued even more.”

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..